Bhakti movement

The Bhakti movement originated in the Southern parts of India, especially Tamil Nadu between 6th and 10th century AD; it slowly percolated to the Northern belt by the end of 15th century.

In South India, there were two main groups of Bhakti saints: Nayanars (Shiva devotees) and Alvars (Vishnu Devotees) who preached devotion to God as a means of salvation and disregarded the austerities preached by Buddhism and Jainism. Most of their poetries were focused on the love between the devotee and God. They spoke and wrote in vernaculars like Tamil and Telugu so that the common people could easily read and recite it. Presence of priest was not required in Bhakti tradition. This made their movement immensely popular.


The Alvars, were Vaishnava poet-saints who sang praises of Vishnu or his avatar Krishna as they travelled from one place to another. They were propagators of Vaishnavism and regarded Vishnu or Krishna as the supreme being. They opposed the philosophy of Jainism and Buddhism. There were 12 Alvars. The 12 Alvars composed a text “Nalariya Divya PrabandhamAndal was the only female Alvar saint and is referred to as Meera of the South’.


They were originally a group of 63 Tamil saints devoted to Lord Shiva, who adopted extreme ascetism to attain the larger goal. The three Nayanars Appar, Sambandar and Sundarar compiled a collection of poems called Tevaram in 10th century AD. Among nayanars were Brahmins and nobles but they also included the oil mongers and the Vellalas.

The Alvars and Nayanars were opposed to Bramanical domination and were also opposed to Jainism and Buddhism. Together, they laid the foundation of Bhakti movement in India.


The Virshaivas are a Shaivite sect in Hinduism that emerged in the 12th Century AD in Karnataka during the reign of Kalachuri dynasty. They opposed elaborate rituals prescribed by Hindu priests. The sect was founded by Basavanna. The followers were called Virshaiva (heroes of Shiva) or the Lingayats (wearers of Shivalinga).

Virshaiva movement included:

  • Worshipping Shiva in his manifestations as linga.
  • Wearing linga on left shoulder, thus known as lingayats.
  • Burying their dead instead of cremating them (as they believe that devotee will be united with Shiva and will not return to this world).
  • Questioning the theory of re-birth.
  • Challenging the caste system.
  • Encouraging post-puberty marriage and re-marriage of widows.

Main Features of the Bhakti Movement

  • Intense love and devotion as the means of salvation.
  • Unity of God (Universalism) and repeating the one true name again and again
  • Rejection of rituals and ceremonies
  • No caste discrimination and keeping an open mind on religious and gender issues. They allowed both men and women to seek salvation. They even took their meals together from the common kitchen. They condemned woman infanticide and Sati practice.
  • Using local and regional languages to spread their messages
  • They stressed on the idea of a personal God
  • Need of a true Guru (teacher) to realise God
  • They propagated equality and spirit of brotherhood like the Sufis
  • They despised priests who they thought were middlemen and instead focused on establishing a personal connection with God.

The two Schools of Bhakti: Saguna School/Nirguna School

The Bhakti saints were divided into two schools depending on the way they imagined God. One school of thought imagined God as formless with no attributes or quality. This school of thought is the Nirguna School. They are more focused on acquiring knowledge. They rejected the scriptures and condemned every form of idol worship. The prominent figures of this school of thought were Kabir, Guru Nanak and Dadu Dayal.

On the other hand, the Saguna School thought of God as having a definite form, quality and positive attributes and the god manifests himself in incarnations such as Rama and Krishna. His spirit is to be found in the idols and images worshipped at home and in temples. The Saguna School emphasises on love and devotion. They accept the spiritual authority of the Vedas and the need of a human Guru as mediator between God and his devotee. Ramanuja, Ramananda and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu belonged to this school of thought.


SL No. Name Year and
1 Adi Shankara 8th century AD Probably Kerala Chief proponent of the advaita (non dualism) school of Vedanta philosophy. The school believes in identity of Atman(individual soul) and Brahman (ultimate reality).
2 Ramanuja
(Tamil Brahmin)
AD Tamil Nadu
He was a major exponent of Sri Vaishnavism tradition and the chief proponent of the Vish-ishtadvaita sub school of Vedanta philosophy. Vishishtadvaita signifies non-dualism of a qualified whole but is characterised by multiplicity. In other words, it believes in “all diversity subsuming to an underlying unity” (qualified monoism). Srirangam Ranganatha temple in Tamil Nadu is associated with his tradition.
3 Madhvacharya
(Kannada Saint)
He was the chief proponent of Dvaita (dualism) School of Vedanta philosophy. He named his philosophy as “Tatvavada”. As per him, there lies a fundamental difference between Atman (individual soul) and the Brahman (ultimate reality or God Vishnu). He was a critic of Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta and Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta.
4 Nimbarka 13th century
(but later
migrated to
He was a vaishnava saint and a chief proponent of Dvait-advait philosophy, i.e., duality and nonduality at the same time (dualistic non-dualism). He founded a community called Nimbarka Sampradaya. The basic practice of this community consists of the worship of Sri Radha Madhav, with Sri Radha being personified as the inseparable part of Sri Krishna.
5 Ramananda 1300-1380
He was a vaishnava saint and considered to be the founder of Ramanandi sampradaya which is the largest ascetic community in India. He was a devotee of Lord Rama. He made an attempt towards a synthesis between Advaita Vedanta and Vaishnava bhakti. Kabir and Ravidas were among his disciples. He was the first to use Hindi for the propagation of his teachings.
6 Vallabhacharya
(Telugu Saint)
North India
He was the founder of Krishna-centered Pushti Marg sect of Vaishnavism in North India (mainly Braj region). He propounded the philosophy of Shuddha advaita (Pure Nondualism). As per him, moksha (salvation) could be attained through Sneha (deep rooted love for God). Nathdwara in Rajasthan is a significant pilgrim place of Pushti Marg sampradaya and is famous for its Shrinathji temple.
7 Kabir (Weaver) 15th century
He believed in Vaishnavism and had a strong bent to monist Advaita philosophy signifying presence of God inside every person and everything. He was the disciple of Ramananda. He belonged to nirguna school and criticised the orthodox ideas and discriminatory caste system. His followers are known as Kabir panthis. His ideas have been compiled in a text called Bijak. Kabir’s verses were also incorporated in Adi Granth, an important text of Sikhism.
8 Guru Nanak 1469-1539
He is said to have been inspired by Kabir and belonged to Nirguna school. He was the first among the 10 sikh gurus and is said to the founder of Sikhism.
9 Narsinh Meta 15th century
He was a saint-poet and belonged to vaishnava sect. He has a great contribution to Gujarati literature and his famous bhajan “Vaishnava jana to” was Mahatma Gandhi’s one of the favourites. Narsinh Mehta is also referred as Adikavi.
10 Chaitanya
West Bengal
He was a Bengali Hindu saint and the chief proponent of the Achintya Bheda Abheda and Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition. Being a prominent Saguna saint, he also expounded the vaishnava school of bhakti yoga and was a ardent devotee of Lord Krishna. He popularised Kirtans (religious songs) as a form to worship Krishna. ISKCON has taken its inspirations from his teachings. He wrote a text “Siksastakam” which is a gaudiya vaishnava prayer in eight verses.
11 Sankardev 1449-1568
He was a vaishnava saint-scholar, poet, playwright and a socio-religious reformer from Assam. He propagated the philosophy of “Ekasarana Dharma” (or one god) in the form of Lord Krishna. “Sattras” are institutional centres or monasteries associated with Ekasarana Dharma. His famous works include Kirtan Ghosa, written in Brajawali (mixture of Maithili and Assamese). Madhavdev was his successor.
12 Surdas 1478-1580
North India
He was blind from birth and was an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna. He belonged to Saguna school and was a disciple of Vallabhacharya. His famous composition is Sursagar.
13 Meerabai 1498-1546
Born in a royal family, she was a devotee of Lord Krishna. She treated Lord Krishna as her husband and composed Bhajans (short religious songs) for him. One of her most popular compositions remains “Paayoji maine Ram Ratan dhan paayo”
14 Dadu Dayal 1544-1603
He rejected the authority of vedas, caste system and external forms of worship such as visits to temples and pilgrimages. Instead, he concentrated on japa (repeating the name of God). His followers are called Dadupanthis.
15 Dnyaneshwar 13th century
He was the worshipper of Vithoba, a manifestation of Lord Vishnu and is related to Varkari sect. He authored Dnyaneshwari (a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita) and Amrutanubhav. These two works are considered to the earliest surviving works in Marathi literature. He was the contemporary of another great Marathi philoso-pher Namdev.
16 Namdev 1270-1350
He is also significant to the Varkari sect of Hinduism and he worshipped Lord Vithoba. His writings are included in Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text of Sikhism.
17 Eknath 1533-1599
He was also a Varkari saint and was influenced by Sufi mysticism and Vedanta philosophy. His famous work is “Eknathi Bhagavata” (a commentary on Bhagavata Gita)
18 Tukaram 17th century
He was also a devotee of Vitthala or Vithoba (god of Varkari sect). He is famous for his devotional poetry known as Abhanga and promoted Kirtans. He was against gender discrimination and caste system.
19 Samarth
He was the devote of Lord Rama and Hanumana and is famous for his advaita vedanta text “Dasbodh”. He was the founder of Samarth sect. Shivaji had great respect for saint Ramdas
20 Guru Ghasi
He believed in equality and strongly criticised the caste system. He established “Satnami Community”. Moreover, he was against idol worship, i.e. he belonged to the Nirguna school. The sect believes god as satnam (he whose name is truth).

Scroll to Top